The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the category “Baseball Cards”

What Not to Say On the Back of Your Baseball Card

I’ve been going through a random stack of baseball cards for about the past hour or so, and I came across an entry on the back of a card for Cubs pitcher, James Russell.  It is a 2011 Topps Update card, US90.  I found it to be a remarkable admission for a player to have on the back of his baseball card.  It’s as if Russell was talking randomly to a teammate, and a representative from Topps just happened to be lounging around Russell’s locker, waiting for him to say something worth writing down.

Topp 20 2013 Rådhusplassen

Fans of James Russell admiring his delivery.

Here it is in its entirety:

James is the son of Jeff Russell, the 1989 AL saves leader.  Their styles, however, differ.  “He had that little extra [velocity] he could reach back for,” says the rookie.  “I really don’t have that.”

Hmm.  So what exactly is it you really do have, James?

Oh, uh, and James, it may be time for you to update your resume.

In fairness to young Mr. Russell, he is having a very decent season this year as a relief pitcher for the Cubs.  In 28 innings, he has a 2.22 ERA, and 26 strikeouts against just eight walks.  I’m sure his dad is quite proud of him, even without that little extra bit of oomph in his delivery.

Let’s just not ask James to write any of us a letter of recommendation.

Let’s Go Buy Some Baseball Cards!

Last week, I was on vacation with my family over at Myrtle Beach, about a five-hour drive from my home in Greenville.  Among the places I had on my agenda to visit was a baseball card shop called Knarf & Kram.  You see, here in Greenville, as in many other towns these days, there just isn’t a sports card dealer to be found.  Basically, if you want to buy baseball cards in the Greenville area, you go to Target, or you go to eBay.  Occasionally, a local flee market might have something interesting to offer as well.

But I’ve really missed walking into an actual sports card shop full of shelves of old boxes of cards, signed memorabilia, rare oddities displayed under the glass counter up front, etc.  So before I drove out to Myrtle Beach, I did some research and discovered that there existed an actual baseball card shop named, as I’ve already said, Knarf & Kram.  Knarf & Kram, it turns out, is co-owned by a father and son, Frank and Mark (thus Knarf and Kram, backwards.)

Frank wasn’t there when I showed up, but Mark, like me a displaced northerner (almost everyone in Myrtle Beach is a displaced northerner), gave me a warm welcome when I came in around 11:00 on a Wednesday morning.  Mark informed me that this place was a dream of his and his father’s going back several years, and that they were now in (if I remember correctly) just their third year in existence.

Their store is well-appointed with exactly the kinds of sports paraphernalia I had hoped to see, including vintage photos, baseball cards old and new, game-used uniforms, and lots of autographs.  Mark, as became obvious from our nearly one-hour conversation, is a huge sports fan, and a great guy.  He’s fair, straightforward and extremely down-to-earth.  Just for the record, he’s also a Yankees fan.

I finally purchased a rare 1/15 Will Clark Upper Deck Signature Sensations, a photo of David Wright hitting the first home run at CitiField, and a few other items.  My total bill came to around a hundred bucks, which I considered a fair price for all I’d obtained.

The best part of the visit, however, was simply the interaction I got to have with a fellow baseball fan, just a few years younger than myself.  You just can’t beat those one-on-one interpersonal connections you can make when you get to talk with another baseball fan, face to face.  They are also, of course, on-line at knarfandkram.com

So if you ever find yourself in the restaurant district near the Coastal Grand Strand mall area of Myrtle Beach, pay a visit to Knarf & Kram, and tell him Bill Miller sent you.  You won’t be disappointed.

Doubles, More Doubles, and Norm Miller

When I first began collecting baseball cards as a kid back in 1974, it quickly became apparent that the Topps Chewing Gum  Co. had a bit of a problem with quality control.  Not that I understood what that term meant, exactly, but the baseball cards themselves were often off-center, of varying degree of glossiness and / or brightness, and sometimes included print-spots that resembled extra-large zits on player’s faces.

To my young mind, worse than any of the above grievances was the issue of coming across the same faces numerous times, pack after wax pack.  Try as I might to come up with a Johnny Bench or a Reggie Jackson, invariably I would pull a Ray Fosse, a Jack Brohamer, or a Tom House.

Or, most frustratingly, for (literally) my money, a Norm Miller.

Norm Miller Atlanta Braves (Baseball Card) 1974 Topps #439

Norm Miller was a backup outfielder for the Atlanta Braves.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, Miller, age 28, was entering his swan-song season in the Majors.  He broke in with the Astros in 1965 at age 19, but whatever the Astros first saw in this presumably hustling teenager, the bloom had long since faded from this particular flower.

The less sagacious Atlanta Braves, however, appeared to believe that there was still reason enough to carry Miller’s light bat at the end of a thin bench.  From that vantage point, at least Miller got to witness firsthand Henry Aaron’s final assault on Ruth’s home-run record.  There are worse ways to earn a living.

Perhaps subconsciously I was also coming to terms with the realization that, an aspiring outfielder myself, and also part of the vast and influential Clan Miller, I might also never amount to anything more than a backup outfielder with underwhelming statistics.

Miller’s citrus-smile mocked me throughout the last half of the ’74 school year, and the entire baseball season.  He looked like a man who wasn’t exactly a ball-player, but was happy enough to be wearing one of those uniforms, anyway.  His non-threatening, every-man demeanor was as reassuring as it was distressing.  Suppose I should strive and aspire to someday be someone — a man of note — only to be revealed to all the vast public as an impostor?

From mid-March, when I began collecting baseball cards, Norm Miller became the one constant in my life.  He followed me into my sleep, and into my dreams.  I was shagging fly balls in a perfect pasture of an outfield, when a Braves bullpen coach shouted at me to get off the field, grab a broom and start sweeping the dugout.  Ralph Garr mocked me as he sauntered over to the batting cage.  Johnny Oates flicked dirt from his cleats onto my little corner at the end of the bench.

Doubles, we called them.  Whenever you got two or more — it didn’t matter how many — of a certain card, we called them doubles.  I think perhaps some people still do.

In school, Miller became the answer to some of my math problems.  12×12?  No sweat.  That’s the pile of Norm Miller baseball cards on my bedroom floor.  If Norm Miller traveled on a train from Atlanta to Cincinnati at 15 miles per hour, and if Rowland Office was traveling from Atlanta to Chicago at 25 miles per hour, and you knew that Miller was going to go 0-4 with two strikeouts in the second game of a double-header, how many times would you play him for the rest of the year?

For my eleventh birthday in May, a Norm Miller birthday cake, not a Billy Miller birthday cake, should have been set on the table for all the children in my neighborhood to enjoy, each little candle a bat splinter from his Louisville Slugger.

Once, I even got two Norm Millers in one pack.  I’m ashamed to admit I began littering the ground that summer with unwanted Norm Miller cards on my way home from the A&G Market, my local grocery store of choice.  I wanted to ask Ann and Gus why they kept sticking Norm Miller cards in every single pack they sold me, but I was too young and still too intimidated by adults to be so rude.

If you were to dig up any section of asphalt on Bridgeport’s west end, I’m confident that even today, you would turn up a soiled and battered Norm Miller baseball card, his smile forever fixed on whatever it was he was focused on at that particular moment in his life.  Had he just finished a nice pancake breakfast?  Were his eyebrows clipped just the way he liked them?  Was there a cute girl waving at a player behind him, and he mistakenly thought she was a fan of his?

Norman Calvin Miller, I estimate that you owe me at least $12.50 for all the dimes I spent on you back in the summer of ’74, and I won’t even figure in inflation.  When you read this, and I know that you are still keeping tabs on my life, please leave the envelope full of dimes on the top of my bureau at my old address in Bridgeport.  I’m confident that it’ll find me.

In his final career at bat, on September 16, 1974 at Candlestick Park, Norm Miller, pinch-hitting against Giants pitcher Jim Barr, struck out.  I like to think he went down swinging, for all of us.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: The Montreal Expos

I always felt that Les’ Expos deserved better.

Lots of teams have fans that complain about the historic hard-luck of their favorite franchise.  The Expos hardly had any fans to do the complaining for them.  And even if they did, they might have complained in French, so few of us here in the U.S.A. would have understood them anyway.

Although I wasn’t a fan, I always had a soft spot for this team.  When I opened my very first pack of baseball cards in 1972, the first player I pulled out of the pack was Expos outfielder Clyde Mashore.  Clyde hit .227 that year, and retired the next season at the age of 28, having hit eight home runs in his short career.

Strangely, Mashore and I share a birthday, May 29th.

The next season, my dad took us on a trip to Canada, where we spent one night in Montreal.  That afternoon, I turned on the black and white T.V. in the hotel room, and lo and behold, there was an Expos game live from Jarry Park.  The broadcast was in French, the reception was poor, and after ten minutes my dad made me turn it off.

Jarry Park was the Expos home stadium from 1969-76.  It seated barely 30,000 people, had a swimming pool beyond the outfield wall, and was the place where Willie Mays played his final regular season baseball game with the Mets in 1973.  Today, the restructured edifice that was once Jarry Park is now called Stade Uniprix (Uniprix Stadium), and it is the main court of the Canada Masters Tennis Tournament.

It is also where Le Grande Orange once played baseball.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you were to put together an All-Time Expos squad, you would have yourself one pretty impressive roster.  Here are just some of the names that come to mind:

1B  A. Galarraga / A. Oliver

2B  D. Deshields

SS  W. Cordero

3B  T. Wallach

C.  G. Carter

OF  A. Dawson

OF  L. Walker

OF  M. Grissom

OF  V. Guerrerro

OF  T. Raines

OF  M. Alou

PH  R. Staub

SP  P. Martinez

SP  D. Martinez

SP  S. Rogers

SP  R. Grimsley

RP  J. Wetteland

RP  J. Reardon

Two of these players, Carter and Dawson, are in the Hall of Fame.  Two others, Guerrerro and Martinez (Pedro) will be.  And in my opinion, still two more, Walker and Raines, deserve to be.  Walker will be eligible next year, I believe.

In my opinion, Larry Walker is one of the most underrated players in baseball history.

I think you would be hard-pressed to find more than a couple of other teams in baseball history to have produced so many excellent outfielders in such a short period of time (about thirty years.)

But since I have limited myself, for the purposes of this series, to choosing just two players from each franchise, let it be Daniel Joseph (Rusty) Staub, and his former teammate, Steve Rogers.

Let’s take the pitcher first.

Even taking into account Pedro Martinez’s short but fantastic tenure with the Expos, Steve Rogers is the best starting pitcher the Expos ever had.  Drafted in the first round (4th pick overall) of the 1971 Amateur Draft, Rogers was the ace of the Expos staff from 1975 through 1983.  During those nine seasons, his highest ERA was 3.42 in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

A constant victim of poor run support, and almost always matching up against the other team’s staff ace, he managed to post an overall win-loss record above .500 seven times in those nine seasons, while the Expos as a whole finished above .500 in just four of those seasons.

Rogers best season was in 1982, when, at the age of 32, he finished second in the Cy Young voting.  His record that year was 19-8, and he led the N.L. with a 2.40 ERA, and in ERA+ at 152.  He pitched 14 complete games, hurled four shut-outs, and posted a WHIP of 1.119.

Rogers spent his entire 13 year career in Montreal, finishing with a career record of just 158-152.  In various seasons, he led his league in complete games, shut-outs, ERA, ERA+…and losses.  He was a five time all-star selection, and he had an excellent career ERA of 3.17.

Steve Rogers just might have been the finest .500 pitcher in baseball history.

Going back a little further in Expos history, back to the days of Jarry Park, a young man with orange hair (thus, Le Grande Orange), smoked line-drives around the frigid little ballpark.

Rusty Staub et un autre joueur des Expos, 8 av...

Rusty Staub et un autre joueur des Expos, 8 avril 1970 (Photo credit: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Born in New Orleans on April Fool’s Day, 1944, he was signed by the Houston Colt .45’s (later, the Astros) in 1961.  After six productive seasons in Houston, including the 1967 season in which he batted .333 at the age of 23, Staub came to Montreal just in time for their initial campaign in 1969.

Although he played only three seasons in Montreal, it was arguably the finest three-year stretch of his career.  His OPS+ in those three seasons were: 166, 139 and 147.  It’s extremely difficult to choose just one of those seasons as his best because in each one of them, he enjoyed a personal high in either runs scored, RBI’s, batting average, home runs, games played, doubles and on-base percentage.

But ultimately I believe Rusty Staub’s finest forgotten season while playing with Montreal was 1971. He played in all 162 games that year, led all outfielders with 20 assists, had a career high 186 hits, scored 94 runs and drove in 97, batted .311, and was sixth in the league with an OPS of .874.  He also tied his career high with 289 total bases that season.

It occurred to me while researching this blog-post that Rusty Staub might have the best forgotten seasons of any Astro, Expo, or Tiger of all time.  But I suppose it would be cheating to come back to him again and again, however tempting.

Growing up a Mets fan, it was strange as a young boy to learn that one of my favorite players, Rusty Staub, had actually played for any other team, let alone two other teams.  It was also shocking to me when I learned just before the 1976 season began that Staub had been traded to Detroit for… Mickey Lolich! (?)  At age 31, Staub had just set a Mets single-season record in 1975 with 105 RBI’s.

That summer, my dad took my family to Rusty Staub’s restaurant (he was a chef as well as a ball-player) in New York City.  I spent the entire meal looking around the dining room to see if Rusty would make a grand entrance, but I was afraid that he might do it in a Tiger’s uniform.  I couldn’t figure out if I would be exhilarated or horrified if Staub were to show up.  Luckily, he never did.

After having returned to the Mets in 1981, Staub played parts of five more years for them before retiring in 1985 at the age of 41.

Staub is one of just three players in baseball history to hit a home run before his twentieth birthday, and then again after his fortieth.  The other two players are Gary Sheffield and Ty Cobb.

But while the Georgia Peach’s reputation has steadily eroded over the years to the point where he can accurately be called a rather infamous figure in baseball history, Le Grande Orange will always be fondly remembered by the fans in several baseball towns across North America, at least by those of us who care to reflect upon his Best Forgotten Seasons.

Baseball Blogs Shout-Out

This blog-post is long overdue.

For months now, I’ve had the pleasure of reading several baseball blogs that I believe other baseball fans, who haven’t yet noticed them, would also enjoy very much.

I have several baseball sites listed on my blog-roll, and all of them are worth taking a look at, but I have found that there are three blogs (actually two blogs and a baseball web-site) in particular that I keep coming back to.  Each of these three offers something valuable, and each of them demonstrates that a quality blog is one into which the creator puts forth a lot of time and energy.

The three baseball blogs /web-sites I have chosen to tell you about today are:

1)  Verdun2’s Blog

2)  Baseballisms

3)  The Baseball Short Stop

Now let me tell you a little about each of them.

Verdun2’s Blog (http://verdun2.wordpress.com) is one of the most well-written baseball blogs out there.  The author is obviously a student of history, and he especially enjoys blogging about baseball when it was still evolving into the game that we know today.  He often writes about baseball as it was at the turn of the last century, and he has also written effectively about the Negro Leagues.

His writing style is spare and to the point.  As opposed to many baseball bloggers I have seen, this gentleman knows how to express himself effectively with whit, irony and understatement, and he seldom wastes a word.  He is well-informed, passionate, and intelligent.  Also, I learn something new every time I read his blog.  I have yet to be disappointed by one of his blog-posts.

If you love baseball and history, as I do, you don’t want to miss this blog.

Baseballisms (baseballisms.com):  I have linked this web-site to my Facebook page so that I don’t miss the daily featured Cards From the Diamond.  Every day, a baseball card from approximately the late ’60’s to the early ’80’s is featured.  Most cards are from the 1970’s, back when I was a boy spending nearly all of my dimes and quarters on packs of baseball cards.  The featured cards are extremely random, and they will bring a smile to your face as you remember their names and pictures.  The reader is also welcome to comment on each card as they appear, so the site is more interactive than most.

This baseball site also features entertaining podcast interviews with people who have been in and around baseball in some capacity for many years.  The site has a nice look and feel to it, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and consistently demonstrates high quality.  Don’t miss it.

The Baseball Short Stop (http://bbshortstop.wordpress.com)  is an unpretentious baseball blog that stays within itself to present news and views in an accessible, uncluttered way.  The author clearly takes the time to think before he writes (a rare exception in the stream-of-consciousness blogging world), and he usually has a point of view worth expressing, and reading.

This baseball blog is geared towards people who care enough about baseball to reach beyond the usual, overly simplistic “The Yankees Suck / The Yankees Rule!!” dichotomy.  The author, however, is not a cold-blooded stat-head.  His is the point of view of a fan who happens to like to think about and comment upon baseball issues and topics.  And really, what more do you really want out of a baseball blog?  Check it out.

My positive comments regarding these three sites is in no way intended to slight other baseball blogs that I didn’t happen to mention today.  In time, as I become better acquainted on a more consistent basis with other baseball blogs, I’ll post another Shout-Out for you to consider.

Meanwhile, thanks to all of you readers who have taken the time to follow my blog since its inception just over three months ago.  The On Deck Circle has now surpassed 700 hits.  If you enjoy my blog, please tell a friend.  I hope you continue to find my posts worth reading.

Cheers, Bill

Post Navigation